A pub that holds a place in the histories of both of Merseyside’s Premier League clubs will tonight play host to a meeting on a topic that is close to the hearts of both of those clubs. The Football Supporters’ Federation are holding the event, ‘Safe Standing: An Open Meeting’, at The Sandon on Oakfield Road.
Tonight’s meeting is on a topic that is hugely emotive for football supporters on Merseyside because it relates to the changes made to stadiums in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. That disaster that saw 96 Liverpool supporters lose their lives and also saw the lives of countless others changed forever. To this day the survivors struggle to deal with the ordeal they went through and the families and survivors still await justice for the acts that caused their suffering. Supporters of both clubs lost people or saw friends or loved ones hurt that day.
The Taylor Report was commissioned after the disaster and whilst blaming the disaster predominately on overcrowding, failures of the police and also on the layout of and methods of entry to the stadium at the time of the disaster it also recommended the introduction of all-seater stadia at clubs in the top two English divisions and the top Scottish division.
The disaster happened at a time when the desire to curtail the hooliganism of a few had outweighed any desire to consider the comfort and safety of the majority. Hooliganism didn’t cause the Hillsborough disaster but had the attitudes of the authorities not been so focussed on curtailing hooliganism perhaps the safety concerns that had been raised time and again in the game in the years leading up to the disaster would have been dealt with first.
Football’s grounds had been designed in Victorian times and changes to deal with hooliganism were bolted onto those old designs. The Leppings Lane end had fences added to divide into pens; most grounds had fencing in front of the terracing that was designed to stop fans getting onto the pitch at all costs. Little thought was given to the chance that maybe those fans might need to escape onto the pitch to get away from trouble, as opposed to causing it. Fans were animals, all of them, in the eyes of those who had the power and responsibility to ensure every supporter was safe.
The Taylor report referred to the “sequence of alterations at the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough. Radial fences were installed to divide up the terraces; this led to a reduction in the system of crush barriers. The area inside the turnstiles was altered for purposes of segregation. Old signs were not removed; new signs were inadequate. The result was a bewildering complex which contributed to the delivery of excessive numbers down the tunnel into pens 3 and 4.”
Taylor said the high, spiked fences “must go”. He went on to say that, “The spectacle of these huge cage-like fences is inconsistent with a sports ground being for pleasure and recreation. Moreover, I believe such intimidatory fences have an adverse affect on both the morale and the behaviour of fans. They feel badly treated. Having to stand in a cage for your Saturday afternoon recreation inevitably causes resentment.”
Taylor said that capacities had to be set appropriately in all areas of a ground, whether seated or standing. Maximum capacities had to take into account the time taken for people in each section to safely leave the ground at the end of a game, also how long it would take them to escape in the event of an emergency. The turnstiles had to be capable of handling the numbers who were going to be entering that section, enough turnstiles for all fans in that section to get into the ground in a maximum of an hour. There had to be ways of preventing too many fans getting into one section – something that appropriate turnstiles could provide.
Taylor wrote that the evidence he’d received had been “overwhelmingly in favour of more seating accommodation” but said there were some who did want to see a certain amount standing room retained, amongst them “the FA and the football supporters’ organisations”.
He wrote their objections were essentially based on three arguments. The first argument was an emotional one relating to the camaraderie of close contact, “jumping up and down” and so on. The second was that “conversion to all-seating will reduce the numbers of fans who can be admitted to the ground; so, many would-be spectators will be disappointed.” The third argument, he said, was cost: “Spectators do not want to pay and, it is argued, many could not pay the substantially higher price of a seat as against the cost of standing.”
That third argument, cost, will probably be a further obstacle to any return of standing areas in the game. Converting the seated areas to “safe standing” areas will cost money and clubs won’t spend that money if it doesn’t result in more money coming in from that section of the ground. It seems unlikely that a club will make such an expensive change to their ground yet reduce prices significantly.
In fact Taylor’s report argued that seated areas would probably contain similar numbers of supporters as standing areas: “The maximum density which experience now shows to be acceptable in standing areas tends to take the force out of the first two arguments. If standing density is little more than seating density, the melded mass previously found on terraces becomes more diffuse and the intensity of the togetherness becomes little greater standing than sitting.
“Likewise, at such a density, the difference between the admissible numbers standing and sitting become marginal.”
He also said that he was “not convinced that the cherished culture of the terraces is wholly lost when fans are seated. Watching the more boisterous and demonstrative sections at all-seater grounds, I have noted no absence of concerted singing, chanting, clapping or gesticulating in unison. The communal spirit is still there and finds ready expression. To such extent as the seating limits togetherness or prevents movement, that price is surely worth paying for the benefits in safety and control.”
Supporters of “safe standing” point out how much it differs from old-fashioned terracing. There are different models being used in different places around the world but they all offer levels of safety far in excess of what was offered to those who went to football in the eighties. If the other safety issues continue to be dealt with appropriately (delaying kick-offs when there is congestion, ensuring turnstiles can cope, ensuring capacity is appropriate for the space available and so on) then it does seem possible that the risks of standing would be far lower than they were at the time Taylor was making his recommendations. If this type of standing isn’t safe at football grounds then why do lower-league clubs still have the right to provide standing areas and why is standing still allowed at, for example, rock concerts?
Of course, despite Hillsborough not being caused by hooliganism, the Taylor report had to take the risks of hooliganism into account and safety wasn’t the only justification given in the recommendation to introduce all-seater stadia. Taylor discussed “control” as well as safety, and that’s what concerns the authorities who, whilst not as preoccupied with hooliganism as they were in the eighties, still want to be able to have so that they can keep trouble inside grounds to a minimum.
In theory a troublemaker inside a football ground today can be identified by looking at the seat that person was in (on CCTV) and checking that against the club’s database of season ticket holders and other ticket buyers. However, for various reasons, it’s not always the case that the person sitting in a seat is the person who is on the club’s records as being the holder of the ticket.
There is every chance that tonight’s meeting, chaired by Tony Evans of the Times and featuring a panel including Malcolm Clarke (Chair of the FSF), Professor Steve Frosdick (Birmingham City University and founder member of the UK Football Safety Officers’ Association) and Paul Jones (season ticket holder on the Kop) will be one that raises more questions than it answers but it is important that the people of Liverpool have this opportunity to both listen and be listened to. The HJC have said they will be represented at the meeting too in order to listen to what the FSF have to say and to be able to take part in the debate and put their view forward.
The FSF point out that, “those attending will also have the opportunity to view a life-size model rail seat area, built to Green Guide safety specifications. The FSF believes that football clubs in the top two tiers should have the option to install rail seating in their ground, if they so wish.”
Amanda Jacks of the FSF said: “We do not underestimate the sensitivities on Merseyside and have nothing but respect and compassion for those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough. We know that some minds can never be changed but we hope to offer reassurance to those who believe standing areas are inherently unsafe. The FSF would never back anything which puts fans at risk and we’d encourage people to come along and listen to what we have to say.”
The meeting is set for 6.30pm for a 7pm start, more details available here: http://www.fsf.org.uk/news/Safe-Standing-An-Open-Meeting.php.